Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis – Narrative, Themes and Characterisation

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The two Mana Khemia games are sometimes unofficially regarded as a continuation of the Atelier Iris trilogy.

It’s fairly easy to see why: the overall presentation is very similar to Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm in particular; the setting, in which human alchemists cooperate with elemental beings known as Mana to Do Alchemy, fits right in with its immediate predecessors; and thematically, there’s a lot in common, too.

Specifically, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis follows the mould of its precursors by contemplating how alchemy, an inherently neutral power by itself, can be used for both good and ill depending on the individual. But this time around, the whole thing is on a rather more personal scale than the world-saving narratives of Atelier Iris. So let’s explore further!

In Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, you take on the role of Vayne Aurelius. At the outset of the game, we don’t know much about Vayne; he apparently lives by himself in a forest with his cat Sulpher, and is seemingly able to communicate with said cat, because said cat is probably possibly actually a Mana.

One day, a man named Zeppel shows up and invites Vayne to attend the Al-Revis Academy, an institution devoted to training young alchemists while deliberately isolating them from the world at large. Although alchemy is an accepted part of the broader world of Mana Khemia, it’s still recognised as something potentially dangerous in the wrong — or untrained — hands. As such, attendees at Al-Revis board at the school for their three years of study and are unable to leave the floating island on which the Academy sits; likewise, there are no visitors from the outside, either.

Upon Zeppel’s initial meeting with Vayne, we’re led to believe that there’s some sort of colourful background going on with the youngster. He is looked upon with mistrust by the public, it seems, and thus it appears he has little to lose by accepting the teacher’s offer and beginning a new life for himself. Perhaps he will discover a few things about himself along the way — including how he ended up living alone in a forest with a cat that only he is able to talk to.

Vayne’s arrival at Al-Revis explores how it feels for someone who has historically been cut off from broader society — whether through deliberate choice or conspiracy of circumstances — to suddenly find themselves in a whole new environment, surrounded by people who don’t know them. Moreover, it highlights what a culture shock it can be for someone who knew they were “special” in their old environment — even if they can’t quite understand exactly how and why — to suddenly be surrounded by people who are more like them.

Vayne appears surprised to be latched onto by a few people shortly after his arrival at the school. Of particular note is his classmate Jessica Philomele, who takes it upon herself to be his first real friend, and his senior Flay Gunnar, who recruits him rather forcefully to join his workshop.

Flay is an interesting character in that on paper he’s not someone that anyone should really be looking up to — and his comrades frequently tell him this. He’s flunked classes at Al-Revis an indeterminate number of times; he never seems to attend lessons or participate in assignments; he appears to have very little obvious talent or interest in alchemy; and he appears more interested in acting as some sort of “hero of justice” around the school campus, when in fact he’s something of a figure of ridicule to some.

However, it also becomes clear very quickly that Flay is obviously the centrepiece of the workshop that becomes the main “hub” for Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis’ narrative. His natural charisma makes him a good “leader” figure — even if strategic thinking isn’t necessarily his strong suit. His loyalty to his friends and willingness to stand with them when they’re struggling makes him feel like something of a big brother to everyone. And, as dumb as some of his ideas are, one can’t help but think it wouldn’t quite be the same if he wasn’t around.

Flay may initially seem somewhat like a comic relief character, but we can also interpret him in another way, given the nature of the Al-Revis Academy and the events of the narrative as a whole. Specifically, given that in the game’s final year we see him applying himself, completing assignments on time and successfully graduating alongside Vayne, Jess and the rest of their cohort, we can infer that he’s been putting off leaving the relative safety of the Al-Revis Academy for as long as possible. Perhaps he’s been waiting for someone to show him that it’s okay to grow up, that it’s okay to leave the “nest”, and that you can’t always depend on “safety nets” provided by other people.

So what causes Flay’s apparent change of heart by the third year of the story? More than likely, it’s seeing how Vayne built himself up from absolutely nothing; how he came to Al-Revis with nothing but the clothes on his back and his ever-present cat; how he learns to live a normal life despite it becoming increasingly apparent over the course of the narrative as a whole that his very existence is anything but ordinary. To put it another way, compared to what Vayne has to deal with over the course of his three years at Al-Revis, Flay’s hesitance to fly the nest probably ends up feeling a little insignificant and silly.

So what of Vayne? We’re led to believe from the outset that there’s something unusual about him, but it’s not until towards the very end of the narrative that we get some concrete answers — or confirmation of suspicions — as well as some explanations as to why certain members of the cast seem to genuinely despise him. Prior to that, Vayne manages to live a fairly normal school life for the most part — although inevitably just as things seem to be getting comfortable for him, something happens to remind him that no, he’s not quite normal and no, he doesn’t know why — which, of course, is extremely frustrating for the poor boy.

It’s a little easier to deduce things about Vayne thanks to the chapter-opening, dialogue-only flashback sequences told from the perspective of Vayne’s deceased father, Theofratus. It becomes clear that Theofratus had some sort of “desire” that he had been working on for a long time, and that there was something he wished to atone for. The pursuit of this desire had driven him into solitude, and it’s not hard to infer that this dogged determination is what would eventually lead to his demise — but again, it’s not until towards the end of the narrative that we get some real answers. Up until then, there’s enough to develop some strong suspicions — particularly if you’ve played several other Atelier games — but nothing concrete.

One of the main things that will get you thinking about the truth behind Vayne is the fact that on several occasions throughout the main narrative, we witness him making something seemingly impossible happen. He restores a burned tree to life; he protects his party from the terrifying power of an ancient dragon; and, when Sulpher passes away of old age, he brings his beloved companion back.

On each of these occasions, Vayne is forced into action, since the triggers for these seeming miracles were deliberately set in motion rather than happening by coincidence. Initially, it appears to be the work of the apparent school bullies Renee and Tony — they were the ones who burned the tree, seemingly simply to maliciously sabotage the assignment that Vayne and his workshop were working on, for example — but over time it is gradually revealed that someone else is pulling the strings behind the scenes in an attempt to test Vayne and see exactly how far he is willing to go with this apparent power that he has. His breaking point is this individual deliberately engaging the party in a deadly battle with the intention of exhausting Sulpher — who uses his Mana powers to act as Vayne’s weapon in combat — and causing his “natural” end to come a little sooner than anticipated.

We’ve seen previously that the Atelier Iris games all tackle the subject of whether alchemy itself is a force for “good” or “bad”, and the inevitable response is that it all depends on the person making use of it. Alchemy can be used for inherently “good” purposes such as curing the sick or feeding the hungry, but it can also be used to harm and destroy. A key part of the students’ education at Al-Revis Academy works on the assumption that alchemy should be used for the betterment of society and thus unlike the Atelier Iris games, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis doesn’t raise particular questions over the morality of making use of what counts as “everyday alchemy” — making potions, bombs and, err, delicious-looking desserts.

Instead, Vayne himself becomes the personification of this core theme. As you may well have surmised by this point, Vayne is not a natural being; he is an artificial life, created through the power of alchemy and Theofratus’ determination to fulfil his final wish. More specifically, Vayne is an artificial Mana, equipped with the astonishing ability to grant any wish. We’ll come back to that bombshell in just a moment.

The creation of life through alchemy is often explored in the Atelier series. In Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, we had Lita’s existence as the creation of the titular Iris. In Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny, we had the sentient Azoth swords that were created through alchemy, as well as the artificial life form Yuveria, who was the catalyst for that game’s entire main scenario as part of her job keeping the “worlds” of Eden and Belkhyde separated. And in the Atelier Arland trilogy, we have the artificial lifeforms Homunculus, originally created through a combination of alchemy, arrogance and spite, but ultimately ending up being a very positive force in the lives of three generations of alchemist.

For the most part, these other examples of artificial life being created through alchemy are depicted as something to be by turns pitied, respected and protected. Vayne is different, though; Vayne represents something genuinely disturbing: a seemingly omnipotent power that can even manipulate forces as primal as life and death themselves.

As you might expect, once the rumours about Vayne get out, he begins being treated with even more mistrust than when he lived alone in the forest. And it’s doubly heartbreaking for him this time around, since he’d worked so hard to cultivate all his relationships and his success at school; for all that to be taken away as a result of something he has no control over — his heritage — seems profoundly unjust.

And that’s because it is. The key thing here is that the ability to do something does not mean the one with that ability is going to do that thing. Alchemists in all the Atelier games create deadly weapons, explosives and poisons on a daily basis, so they could do some real damage to society — but they don’t. Vayne is simply an extreme example of that — he can snuff out a life simply by wishing it, but he doesn’t.

Why, even when he’s in a situation that is clearly life-or-death for him and the people around him; a situation where simply wishing death upon their assailant would clear things up nicely? Because firstly, things are rarely that black and white, particularly when it comes to relationships between human beings; and secondly, he simply doesn’t want to.

The way he’s been brought up, the bonds he’s forged with the people around himself and his innate nature means that the possibility of killing someone just by wishing it never even crosses his mind. He kills precisely no-one over the course of his three years at Al-Revis (monsters don’t count); he does, however, bring the breath of life back to three completely different living beings, because certain other people involved in the story have no such qualms about cutting lives short via means more readily available to them, sometimes for reasons as simple as “proving a point”.

So why is he perceived as such a threat? If he’s a good enough person to not use his power for evil, why is he regarded with such fear and distrust? Because, as we’ve seen throughout the other installments in the Atelier Iris series — particularly Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm — nobody is perfect. Nobody is completely infallible, and, presented with a power such as this, nobody can really say what their own personal tipping point would be until it’s too late. Vayne, after all, doesn’t hesitate to use his power to bring life to those who have lost it; one can therefore, assume that there would be some circumstances in which he would take a life.

And indeed there was. We learn late in the narrative what Theofratus’ final wish truly was, and the reason he created Vayne in the first place, knowing full well how dangerous his power would be.

He wished to die.

Theofratus was regarded as one of the great alchemists of the age prior to his apparent disappearance, so one might question why he would need to go to such lengths to commit suicide — and why he wished to end his own life at all, for that matter. The answer, as it happens, lies with that first friend Vayne makes at Al-Revis: Jessica Philomele.

Jessica was a sickly child growing up, and was not expected to survive into her adolescence. Theofratus, who had been travelling around using his alchemy to benefit society as we’ve established a good alchemist should, happened upon her case while visiting her village, and resolved to try and rid her of this unknown ailment. After much experimentation, he eventually succeeded, but there was a terrible cost: while Jessica was no longer “ill” as such, Theofratus’ treatment had shaved numerous decades off her lifespan, meaning she was still going to die well before her time.

Wracked with guilt over the life he believed he had “stolen”, he became a recluse, dedicating his days to the attempt to find a way to restore that which he had “taken”. The irony, of course, is that Jessica had already lived with her disease for so long by this point that she had become somewhat numb to the thought of her impending death, and was even grateful for the fact she could continue to live a little longer without the pain and discomfort of the actual ailment. Indeed, her personal quests throughout Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis demonstrate that, initially at least, she absolutely does not understand exactly why people grieve when others pass on, or why Vayne is so upset when she reveals the truth of her existence to him.

Theofratus, having acted rashly, was not to know this, of course, and set about trying to discover ways to prolong life, with a mind to returning that which he had “stolen” from Jessica. It seems he ended up experimenting on himself a great deal, as he is described as having lived an “unnaturally long life”, and this would shed some light on why he felt the need to resort to drastic measures to disappear from this world; normal methods may not have been sufficient.

But why give up at all? We don’t get a firm answer on that, but we are led to believe that Theofratus’ isolation led to him becoming less and less rational; very much a shadow of the respected alchemist from years prior. It’s likely he saw a point of no return; with Jessica’s life continuing to tick away and no cure in sight, eventually, he succumbed to despair, and began work on his final creation: a manifestation of that despair that would allow him to pay the ultimate price in an attempt to atone for his sin.

We’re led to believe that Vayne’s killing of Theofratus is one of the first things he does after his “birth”, since he doesn’t remember it at all. But the idea of him as a manifestation of despair is sound, particularly when we look at the game’s final encounter; many of the attacks the party ends up having to endure relate to negative emotions, and indeed throughout the game Vayne is depicted as a rather dour individual that it’s tough to get a smile out of.

Indeed, the last moments of the main story see Vayne in a similar situation to Theofratus; overcome with guilt for the life he “stole”, he wishes for nothing more than to disappear from the world. But he has a hesitation, and this marks a key difference between him and his father: as much as he wants to disappear, he also doesn’t want to be alone.

Initially, the manifestation of his power interprets this as him wanting to die alongside his friends, but the presence of said friends allows him to realise that he does have things to live for: promises made, relationships built, the ability to learn from mistakes and be supported by others in even your darkest moments.

The exact outcome of the finale depends on which of the main cast’s personal quests you saw through to completion — if any — but one thing remains constant. Ending your own life may feel like a quick solution to your own problems — but it leaves lasting effects on those around you; effects that can last for many, many years, and that can end up having an adverse impact on a whole new generation of people who are not to blame for the perceived sins of their fathers.

Theofratus did what he could for Jessica, and she did not blame him for the side-effects of her “cure”. Likewise, Vayne’s very nature as an alchemical creation means he was not to blame for the actions he took before he was aware of his own existence. The difference between the two of them is that Vayne, upon reaching the depths of despair in his heart’s prison, had people there to help pull him back from the brink, while Theofratus fell deep into the abyss in the belief that he was all alone — a belief that turned out to be mistaken, just to make his tale all the more tragic.

Any kind of power — be it alchemy, the ability to grant wishes, even simple physical strength — can be used for good or for ill, and making use of that power can end up having unanticipated side-effects that may cause lingering regrets. And one of the ways we can define ourselves as people is in what we do after that happens.

Do we learn from the experience? Do we seek to understand what went wrong, and how to make it right? Do we run and hide, fearful of the consequences of our actions eventually catching up with us?

Or do we recognise that sometimes, the best thing to do is to let go of a potentially harmful part of ourselves, and live our lives as best we can, supported by the people who we know truly love us?

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